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Chisholm: Wizards maintain status quo with signings

Tim Chisholm

9/15/2008 10:23:27 AM

They had to do it. There isn't much glory or success for going through with it, but they really, truly had to do it. They needed to resign Gilbert Arenas to a new six-year, $111 million deal because losing him - even with all of his peculiarities and distractions - sends this team back into irrelevancy. They also had to resign Antawn Jamison for four years at $50 million because his health and consistency are a huge factor in what makes this team (marginally) successful. So, they had to resign them both, but in doing so the Wizards have set themselves up for years of mediocre Playoff appearances just like the one they are coming off of.
 
This is a franchise that is clinging (desperately) to a memory from two seasons ago when the team was fleetingly sitting atop the Eastern standings before injuries to Arenas and Caron Butler derailed their season. It was more of the same last year where the team was without Arenas for all but thirteen games and only had Butler for fifty-eight. The remaining parts of the team (led chiefly by Jamison) were stilable to nab the fifth seed in the Playoffs, though they would succumb to the Cavaliers in six games.
 
The problems with trying to retain the pieces of the team that found itself at the top of the Eastern heap two years ago are plenty. First is the fact that two years ago the East was a very different Conference. There was no Kevin Garnett or Elton Brand. LeBron James hadn't yet dragged his team to the Finals. Chris Bosh and Jermaine O'Neal didn't share a frontcourt.

Atlanta hadn't been to the Playoffs in eons and Orlando was a borderline Playoff club, not a top-four power. The East is a far more competitive Conference than it has been in recent memory, at least on paper, and the Wizards - while no doubt a Playoff-caliber team - have stood by and maintained while the rest of the Conference has improved dramatically around them.
 
Another problem is that the team's core of Arenas, Butler and Jamison bring many questions to the table. The first, of course, is health - especially regarding Arenas and Butler. Arenas is coming off of major surgery and that always raises red flags for a professional athlete, while Butler hasn't played 80 games in a season…well, ever. He's averaged 65 games per year in his three years in Washington and this team simply doesn't have the depth behind him to account for those missing games. Jamison, on the other hand, has been a model of regularity, missing only 29 games total since '01-'02, but at 32 years old he's exiting his prime years and one has to wonder if all of those minutes (he's averaged 37 a game over his career) are going to start to take a toll on his body. Losing Jamison for any stretch of time would be devastating for this team as he, more than any other player on this roster, is indispensable with his combination of outside shooting and aggressive rebounding. The team may not have to worry about his body breaking down this year, but they also aren't in a position to contend this year. It's in years three and four of that monster deal, when the team maybe, could be in a better position to win big, that should have the team concerned.

Those issues, though, pale in comparison to the issue of returning to the age of Arenas. Arenas is one of the most talented scorers the NBA has ever seen. However, his penchant to breaking out of the team's offense for a little 'me-first' basketball would be deadly for any team with its sights set on a title, but it is especially difficult for the Wizards because he is viewed as the team's leader and franchise player. He has been put in the drivers seat for this franchise and unless sitting out for nearly a whole season gave him a new perspective on the game the Wizards will once again be handcuffed by his every whim and fancy. In this era of ever expanding team-ball, Arenas feels like a throwback to the NBA of the late-90's that the league is fast removing itself from. If Arenas can grow and adapt with the rest of the league then perhaps this team stands a fighting chance down the road, but for right now they look like another lower-four Playoff seed that doesn't have the tools to knock off one of the big guns.

PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP

PG - Gilbert Arenas

So what is there left to say about Arenas after that? It's tough, because Arenas as a person is far more encouraging than Arenas the player. The person is thoughtful, provocative and flirts with controversy via his nba.com blog. He is introspective and retrospective and he refreshingly stands as one of the few players in the league that doesn't communicate with the outside world in sound bites. However, Arenas the player allows a more narcissistic personality to dictate his style of play. He feels that because he is the most talented player on his team that he has free reign to conduct his game as he wishes. Sometimes that will be within the offense, sometimes not. The issue is that in the time he has been away from the game Butler and Jamison have shown a penchant for putting up big scoring numbers but have also complimented that with rebounds and respectable shooting percentages. So while he still holds the keys to the franchise in his hands, the two players behind him have shown that they can get the team just as far as he can without his help. It won't provoke a trade of Arenas, for certain, but it could start to rile a few feathers if he continues in a traditional Arenas manner.

SG - DeShawn Stevenson

His feud last spring with LeBron James was a joke. To try and fire up one of the best players in the NBA going into the post-season is just asinine. However, to follow up those taunts with a pathetic 38% shooting clip in the series and a completely irrelevant presence on the defensive end of the court is just inexcusable. Stevenson is a marginal talent who is his own number-one fan. Having some swagger in the NBA is a positive (some say a necessity), but if you can't back it up then what good does all of your posturing do for your team?

SF - Caron Butler

If Butler were still in LA or Miami, he'd be one of the biggest players in the league today. He can do it all on the court - at both ends - and he's got an All-Star appearance (2007) to back it up. However, he plays second- (sometimes third-) fiddle in Washington (hardly a marketing Mecca) and he'll be doing so for the foreseeable future. The problem is that he, like Shawn Marion before him, can do so many things on the floor that his higher-profile teammates can't, so he is stuck guarding the other team's best player and getting steals and grabbing rebounds and dishing the ball that he doesn't get the offensive glory he'd need to get more media attention. However, unlike Marion, Butler actually has the scoring chops to carry that load if he's ever asked to. If he could stay healthy he'd be forcing the team to find a way to get him even more involved in what the team does because he does it all so well, but so far a healthy Butler has just been a fantasy and the team keeps the ball in the hands of Arenas and Jamison as a result.

PF - Antawn Jamison

If this preview has had a theme, it has been the importance of Jamison. Sometimes it isn't the single most talented player on a roster that is most invaluable. After all, Arenas and Butler have missed plenty of games in the last two seasons and yet the Wizards have managed to keep their heads above water (and it isn't because of Nick Young and AndrayBlatche). Jamison has been a model of consistency both in terms of his stats and in terms of his health. He has been integral to whatever success that this team has had since joining the Wizards in 2004 and that, more than his All-Star appearances or 20-10 stats, is what forced this team to lock him up this summer (even before they did Arenas).

C - Brendan Haywood

Haywood had a very under-the-radar breakout last season. Freed from having to split minutes with Etan Thomas at the centre spot Haywood finally started to show signs that he can be a useful and contributing NBA centre. Sure, his 10.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game don't exactly set one's imagination on fire, but they are both career-highs and they were achieved in only 28 minutes per game. He'll probably never be a big-minute or big-number guy, but if he can steady his consistency and give a team the kind of production that a Kurt Thomas or Joel Przybilla gives he won't have to worry about not starting for an NBA team, the Wizards or otherwise, for a long time.